Methamphetamine Laboratories: The Geography of Drug Production

Article excerpt

Abstract: There has been considerable public concern and legislative activity surrounding the issue of domestic methamphetamine production. What has not been extensively examined is the broader context within which domestic methamphetamine production takes place. This study utilizes geographic location data on 14,448 seized methamphetamine laboratories to document the association between the presence of methamphetamine labs and economic factors, social factors, and crime. The study shows that laboratory seizures spiked upward immediately prior to the implementation of legislation restricting access to methamphetamine precursor drugs and declined immediately after the legislation was passed, remaining well below pre-regulation levels. However, more than a third of U.S. counties reported laboratory seizures after strict precursor regulations were in place, suggesting that while the problem of local methamphetamine lab production was diminished by precursor regulation, it was not eliminated.

The study also examined factors most strongly associated with the seizure of methamphetamine laboratories at the county level. Economic instability was not a good predictor of the presence of methamphetamine labs, nor were spatial or geographic variables. In general, counties with higher lab seizure rates tended to have a predominantly White, English-speaking population with a substantial representation of evangelical churches. Methamphetamine laboratory counties also tended to have employment based on manufacturing, a larger farm population, single-female-headed households, a higher than average property crime rate, be more racially segregated, have a population that moved into the household within the past year, and have a higher percent of occupied housing. In sum, neither traditional measures of social disorganization nor measures of civic engagement consistently predict the presence of methamphetamine labs.

Keywords: methamphetamine, laboratories, drugs, stimulants, drug production, drug crime, geography, precursors, rural, drug seizures


Methamphetamine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant, part of a larger family of stimulant drugs that includes amphetamine, cocaine, methylphenidate, ephedrine and ecstasy. The general effects of all stimulant drugs are the same, although the effects of methamphetamine last longer, and the drug is more potent (i.e., it takes a smaller amount to generate the same effect) than other drugs in this category. The methamphetamine user rapidly develops a tolerance for the drug, requiring increasingly large doses to achieve the same effect. Common physiological effects include intense feelings of well-being and confidence, paranoia, appetite suppression, extended periods of wakefulness, and an accelerated heartbeat (cf. Weisheit and White 2009). Unlike heroin or cocaine, methamphetamine can be easily and inexpensively manufactured within the U.S. with little equipment, few supplies, and almost no expertise in chemistry. The production process creates its own set of unique problems for the environment and the community.


Methamphetamine was first synthesized in 1919 and for decades, was legally manufactured as a drug erroneously thought to be safe and nonaddictive. Early recreational users of the drug found it easy to get from doctors or from supplies diverted from the licit market. In response to concerns about the drug's abuse, drug makers withdrew injectable methamphetamine from the market in the early 1960s, leaving users without a ready supply of the drug (Miller 1997:116). As a result of this unmet demand, the first illicit methamphetamine laboratories emerged in San Francisco in 1962 or 1963, perhaps with the help of some legitimate chemists (Brecher 1972; Smith 1969; Miller 1997). Eventually, methamphetamine production made its way along the entire west coast from San Diego to Washington State. From there, production moved eastward so that today methamphetamine labs have been found in every state. …